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Killzone: Mercenary (Vita) artwork

Killzone: Mercenary (Vita) review

"The focus is flexibility, and it's a surprising quality in what I previously took to be a series of set piece-driven corridor shooters."

Killzone: Mercenary asset

I've been trying to decide over the past couple of days whether or not Killzone: Mercenary is actually as good as I think it is. I could just be in shock that, at long last, someone has finally made decent handheld first-person shooter. I could name a few decent Mode 7-based titles from the Game Boy Advance era, but ever since portables began regularly using polygons, the genre's been wide open. At long last, here comes Mercenary, all playable and competent and above-average and everything.

Let's get one thing straight: Mercenary does not deliver a console FPS experience, nor could it ever. As powerful and versatile a machine as the Vita is, and as well as Mercenary uses every tool at its disposal, you'll still be getting hand cramps dealing with analog sticks the size of mosquito bites and squidgy shoulder buttons that don't feel like they're attached properly. This is never going to feel as comfortable or responsive in a competitive, action-oriented environment as using a real controller, and you can easily see where developer Guerrilla Cambridge dialed down the enemy AI to compensate.

And even once you've brought your expectations down to the appropriate level, you're still left with a Killzone game that's form-fitted with many of the usual modern military shooter trappings – the ironsights aiming, the cover system – and is slathered in the usual browns and greys. I mean, even the recent Shadow Fall at least had the courtesy of being relatively colorful, you know?

Yet I've come to the conclusion that Mercenary is a damn fine FPS, and it all comes down to the title. You play as, indeed, a hired gun in Mercenary. There's an actual economy to the game's campaign, and it's one of the few shooters to actively and immediately reward players for efficiency. You earn bonus money for headshots, which is to be expected, and even more money for successful stealth, which is not. Here's a series so steadfastly gun-crazy that it has the word "kill" in its damn title, and this particular entry actually sports a thoroughly solid stealth angle – buy suppressed weapons, monitor enemy movements on radar, shoot out cameras and silently execute patrolling guards from behind. If you manage to grab a commanding officer without raising attention, you can interrogate him for intel, which results in, yep, an even higher bonus.

Killzone: Mercenary asset

Stealth is, of course, not the absolute focus in Mercenary. The focus is flexibility, and it's a surprising quality in what I previously took to be a series of set piece-driven corridor shooters. All of this money that you earn goes into equipment, and what's impressive is that nothing that you buy is really an "upgrade" so much as a trade-off. Armor that offers better protection will also broadcast your position or slow your movement. An assault rifle that's more powerful will also be louder or less accurate. Silenced or specialized weapons will hold less ammo. While I wouldn't call Mercenary's level design "open" by any stretch, it at least offers enough breathing room to make multiple approaches possible. And since the black market kiosks are absolutely everywhere (seriously, there are a couple in each room), it's never difficult or inconvenient to change things up.

The only real flaw in this system is that if you happen to settle into a groove and don't actually want to experiment, it leaves you with very little to actually spend money on, save for ammo (which is admittedly a concern, since you can't hold much and Mercenary forces you to pick up every dropped magazine individually). Players who don't free-range, though, will be missing out on the ecstatic thrill of toying around with the game's VAN-Guard abilities, only one of which can be equipped at a time. You have your standard stuff – your shields, your cloaking devices, your homing missiles – but then you've got a Hammer of Dawn-esque orbital laser that's controlled overhead ŕ la Call of Duty 4's famous AC-130 mission. Each of the VAN-Guard powers adds a little something special to the way levels progress, and emphasizes the idea of players forging their own combat styles.

If there's an issue with Mercenary, it's that the touch screen implementation is hit-and-miss – I actually enjoyed the hacking mini-game, which moves swiftly yet requires some sharp on-the-spot problem-solving, but the mandatory swipes required to complete a melee takedown are a bit much. If there's an even bigger issue with Mercenary, it's the miserable final boss, which kills the accumulated momentum of what is 98% of an adeptly-paced campaign. It's cheap, it goes on forever and it overwhelms what little story intrigue Mercenary develops by the end. The game briefly explores war profiteering and the idea of participating in an armed conflict without allegiance to one side or the other, but its messages are nullified when its climactic encounter feels so distinctly video game-like.

Killzone: Mercenary asset

Mercenary still manages to offer far and away my favorite Killzone campaign yet, but it also adheres rigidly to the series' tradition of its multiplayer holding the most appeal. Much of it is run-of-the-mill, but the clear standout is a mode called Warzone, wherein two teams complete five objective-based phases, doing things like hacking mobile terminals or collecting item drops from downed opponents. What I love is that Mercenary is probably the only competitive shooter I've ever played in which I actually took advantage of having multiple loadouts. Since Warzone constantly mixes up its objectives, having different equipment sets for different situations is essential. During the interrogation phase, you'll want non-lethal weaponry or quieter gear; for the deathmatch rounds, more protection and harder-hitting firepower may be ideal.

Plus, those wonderful VAN-Guard gadgets carry over into the online modes and will contribute a heckload of player-made water cooler moments. A particular favorite of mine was when an enemy player and I were standing on opposite sides of an automatic door. We could both see each other on our radars, but neither wanted to make the first move. I finally decided to charge through the door, whereupon I was met with a flurry of bullets... all of which bounced off of the Carapace shield that I had just activated. I waited until he emptied his short clip, and then I downed him with a single bullet, and good times were had.

So it's a great package, but even after I've determined that Mercenary is a worthwhile game for its depth and its entertainment value, I'd be lying if I said that the game's visual splendor isn't a massive thrill in and of itself. It's getting harder and harder for consoles to impress us with graphical power, yes, but I can never seem to stop gaping in awe over what this flat, scrawny little handheld is capable of. Even if Mercenary had turned out poorly, I'd still urge you to check it out purely for a scene in the first mission wherein the main character and his buddy dive through a window, glide over a massive cityscape and land in an adjacent high-rise, all while the Vita doesn't so much as clear its throat. Thankfully, I can recommend Mercenary for a whole hell of a lot more than that. I'm gonna go play it some more when I'm done here, while my copy of Shadow Fall goes ignored on my shelf.


Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (January 18, 2014)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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honestgamer posted January 18, 2014:

Even before I hit the final line, you had me thinking that I chose the wrong Killzone game to start with (Shadow Fall). This was an excellent review, as usual. If I weren't broke, I'd probably order myself a copy of this right now. Maybe later I still will. It seems like the sort of Vita title that belongs in my library.
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Suskie posted January 18, 2014:

Thanks for reading! The game's still currently only $9 for PS+ users, if that helps.

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